Sofa, TV, pod and pad – settings of ubiquitous sociality
In part 1 of this article – posted last summer – the basic idea was that these days ubiquitous computing is realized through the explosive commercial development of gadgets with screens of all sizes. Potentially anywhere, we have access to computer power and Internet connections via a tab, a pad or a board (to use Weiser’s terms). When linking ubicomp in this widespread form with human communication and social media, one becomes aware of sociality as an ever-present phenomenon. Is then ubiquitous sociality an interesting term – and what does it imply as a daily life phenomenon? Has ubicomp finally found its purpose within social media – and in unrestrained socializing at the watering holes of the public realm or in the nooks and crannies of home?
Beep – e-mail to read. Video call on TV, mobile as remote. Pad as calculator when checking accounts on computer. Eager little signals on phone reveal social rush, check Facebook on computer screen. Watch video on TV in sofa, on pad in bed, on phone in kitchen. Download music on computer. Read on laptop in café, in bed. Text on phone in bathroom. Iconic body language on platform reveals intense chatting, or mailing, or texting. Charging phones, pods and pads. Video call on pad. Music on phone, pod, pad. Ding-a-ling – status updates on Facebook. Program HD recordings using pad. Watch movie on desktop screen in office chair. Chat on phone, in metro, continue on laptop in sofa. Streaming music on phone. Watch TV on TV, on laptop in train or in waiting room. Make phone calls on mobile, at home, at bus stop, at work. Tiiing – more e-mails to check. Update status, on phone, on pad, in sofa. Checking TV-shows on laptop, watching TV. Chat on TV, watching TV on laptop. Ti-ding – text message. Download article on pad. Frenetic phone melodies in bus indicate anticipation of workday, indicate homecoming rituals.
Everywhere: screens of all sizes
In part 1, I reminded the reader about Marc Weiser’s three types of ubicomp devices: tabs, pads and boards presented some 15 years ago. Today, such devices are spreading everywhere, now termed pods or smart phones, pads (as Weiser suggested) and large screens (rather than boards). Obviously, Weiser was clever to anticipate the tools necessary to have access to computing power and, more importantly, networks of communication. The touch sensitive screen of the pod or smart phone is now is available on pads and will perhaps – at least for certain contexts of group interaction – be a feature even of large screens. In January 2012, according to what the press reports, the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas seems to confirm the present focus upon screens. Mobile phones that some years ago where shrinking to sizes only children with very small fingers could handle are now growing again, to allow for a reasonably large and user friendly touch screen. The market seems to be overflowing with pads of all sorts. And television (although very slowly) is merging with computing. New types of screens are introduced and new ways of controlling the TV using voice and gestures wants to replace the remote.
The bottom line of this is spatial: There is a screen for every occasion and place, which means that social media are endowed ubiquitous accessibility. Since just a few years, our network of connections now may follow us from the office desk or factory floor to the bus stop or train station to the café to the grocery and finally to the living room sofa, kitchen table or bedroom. A few years ago, Mimi Sheller wrote about the mobile phone user: “He or she is holding in abeyance a wide range of ‘absent presences’, with whom a conversational coupling might easily be established” (Sheller 2004). And similiar to the people of Balliemenone, we tend to leave the digital door ajar for anyone of our closer or more distant friends to sneak in, almost at any time of the day.
The word social media – just like e.g. meeting-place – is definitely a tautology. What is media if not social? What is place if not where to meet? For some reason, we need such expressions that sort of repeat their own purport. Obviously social media refers to being social one-to-one in contrast to the one-to-many socialization of mass media. However, such one-to-one interactions are staged so that all members of a network of friends are aware of them going on, thus “social” also connotes a common (many-to-many) sphere for the interplay one-to-one. Combined with mobile communication tools, social media also refers to the phenomenon of incessant social intercourse without the involvement of a central distribution apparatus.
What then is there to understand about ubiquitous sociality? Firstly that the expression could be used for ancient practices of sociability as well as for those involving mobile communication technologies. Basically it represents the ever presence of the (relevant) world of social connections. But today, spatial proximity as a prerequisite has been replaced by mediated accessibility. Secondly that the intermediaries of social interaction, the non-human actants involved, have existed as long as there has been “culture”. However, little by little we have left old actants behind and found new ones. In the Ballymenone of Henry Glassie, we are strangers since long ago. The door still is there as word and form, but means something different. No longer do we know that the door should always be left ajar to let neighbours discretely sneak in. And the neighbours no longer have time to visit and sit for hours by that smoking fire. Perhaps the peat fire still glows, but now it does something else to us. Artefacts have travelled in time and forgotten there proper places. Humans have also changed. Thirdly, and this can just as well be said at once, place or space do not disappear or dissolve as a result of speed or mediated real time interaction or absent presence. With ubiquitous sociality based upon mobile communication technologies, however, certain new practices of räumen (making room or place-making) are introduced.
Ubiquitous sociality: mobilizing communities
Such new socio-spatial practices are already well-known to most of us. The majority of my posts in this blog refer to them one way or the other. However, lately I have felt an urge to delve deeper into certain practices that more intensely than others create contexts of mutual social interaction. I have a suspicion that, contrary to the widespread criticism, the use of mobiles in public space promotes community rather than privacy. As I wrote in “Lunching alone… or?”, mobile chats in the public do not simply connote privatisation. Rather it is a way for communities to take place in urban rooms. Mobile communities exist and are reproduced via meetings face-to-face and mediated interaction equally. And public space today is just as much about switching between such contexts as about the classic encounters between strangers.
Perhaps it seems a bit awkward to speak about “media” in contexts of face-to-face communication as I do above. Normally, media involves the use of some kind of machinery that conveys signals. However, to be able to relate ancient practices to those of today, the original kinds of interaction based upon sounds, words, bodily gestures, face expressions etc should be seen as an extremely long-lived system of sociality that the social media of today in certain senses seem to replace. According to ANT (actor-network theory) it is also clear that non-human actants are involved in such primary interaction as “mediators”, even within face-to-face reach. In the world of an Amazon tribe or even in the Ballymenone of Henry Glassie, (almost) all the people one needed to know were available in close distance. And their interaction involved the interplay with material objects and structures. In a globalized world, the corresponding group of people sooner or later are spread out over the planet. Social media – and the communication tools required – in a clever way re-collects this group and makes it virtually present anywhere there is an internet connection.
I remember my spontaneous reactions when reading about Ballymenone for the first time: The whole idea of friends and neighbours coming and going all the time provoked my sense of privacy. I had fantasies about being invaded, of loosing control. For me, this relaxed rural tableau carried strong overtones of frustration. But now it seems that history in an ironic way repeats itself. I am sitting here, in my sofa, watching a movie on TV, and checking Facebook on my iPhone whenever I hear that ding-a-ling.
Sheller, M (2004): Mobile publics: beyond the network perspective. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol. 22, pp 39-52.
For references, see also Ubicomp and social media (part 1).